Raising Awareness: Tips to Help You Draft a Compelling Op-Ed

By on Tuesday, April 12, 2011
A well-placed opinion editorial, or op-ed, can be a tremendous asset to your nonprofit organization’s cause. It’s also one of the most under-utilized and mis-used public relations tools – probably because people don’t fully understand how to use it. Here’s a few tips to help:
  • Fcous your op-ed on one cogent position and compelling issue. What hot button issue do you care about? What problem or issue seems to surface constantly in front of your nonprofit? What prevents the problem or issue from being resolved? What stereotypes do you want to rebut? What new facts can you introduce that will re-invigorate public discussion of a tired and worn out issue? How can you help people see a long-standing issue in a new way? What do you want for people to do in response to this new knowledge about a problem or issue? How can others help?
  • Nothing gets ink like a hard line. Don’t waver or vacillate between your opinion and its contrarian. Come down hard on one side or the other of an issue. This is not the place to write up a summary of your annual fundraiser or a summary of your nonprofit’s activities – those things are better left to news releases, newsletter articles and features. Draw the rhetorical line in the sand.
  • Use facts to back up your argument. Cite statistics, recent events, relevant research, an anecdote or a personal story that illustrates a problem or solution. It should not just be about emotion. There need to be compelling facts in your argument that prove why your perspective is so powerful and persuasive. A local statistic, research nugget or fact that illustrates a national problem or concern can be extremely useful and demonstrate how a bigger issue is impacting a local community.
  • Write well and be direct. The op-ed is one of the few places in journalism today, where good writing style still matters. Don’t “build up” to your opinion at the end as if you are writing an essay for English class or a short story with a culmination.
  • Consider the impact of what you are writing before it is published. Is the reaction you want, going to result from what you wrote? One poorly-nuanced op-ed by a loose cannon can destroy relationships and trust. How will the agency’s Board of Directors react? Other nonprofit, government or corporate partners?
  • Look at the calendar and tie into current news events if you can. You are more likely to get published if your op-ed is tied to an issue being considered by politicians or the public right now or linked to a very recent event in the news. Often some of the best op-eds are penned very quickly. You might even want to keep a few rough drafts ready, so when a news event happens, you just have to tweak the copy and send it out. Conversely, if you aren’t writing about electoral issues, the weeks immediately before an election may not be the best time to submit your op-ed on an unrelated topic, since space will likely be taken up with a few of the many submissions related to the election.
  • Have something new to say if it’s an “awareness month” for your cause. While requesting an op-ed for an “awareness month” or “anniversary week” devoted to your issue or organization may be helpful, it’s not always a compelling hook for an op-ed page editor, who has heard of awareness months and weeks galore. Have something new to say. If you are saying the same thing that was published last week by someone else during a month of awareness activities for a particular cause, then you need to come up with a new angle. You need to be compelling to stand out from the crowd and earn ink space.
  • Remember, ordinary people are the ones you want to act. Your op-ed will be most effective if it is clear, conversational and compelling. This is no time to whip out your thesaurus and throw around fancy words to show how smart you are. Nor is it time to interlace your prose with adjectives, adverbs or jargon. These just muddy up the copy and distract readers. Keep the verb tense active and avoid passive voice. A personal and conversational tone is going to win you more advocates than one that sounds preachy or stuffy. You want to come across as smart and passionate in your op-ed, not overblown or full of it.
  • Sum it up and invite others to act. Near the end of the op-ed, clearly re-state or summarize your position. Issue a call to action. What are you really asking people to do? How can they help? Can they call, advocate, volunteer or assist in some way? Give them real actions and ideas.
  • Keep it brief. Keep your op-ed well under 700 words. Under 600 is even better.This is no time to wax eloquently over a thousand words. As passionate as you may be about your cause, and as important as it may be to the community, a newspaper op-ed page editor will probably not give you an exception to go over their word limit, or suddenly decide to print something that is much, much longer than anything they’ve previously written. An online site editor will likely have more leeway with word counts and space, but even then, don’t go over their word count.
  • Get a friend to edit your op-ed and help you get it into shape. Do not count on the editor to have time to polish your copy for you, or to take your 1,500 word masterpiece and cut it down to 700 words (trust me – you wouldn’t like what comes off the butcher block if it were to happen). It’s better if you do the edit and know the words are yours. Ask a friend or colleague to read your op-ed. Ask for their honest and gut reaction. Is that what you were going for? Ask your friend or colleague to help you edit it to within the required word count and to keep the argument tight and lean.
  • Review the newspaper or website’s submission policies. Look at the op-ed page. See what they typically publish. How many op-eds (of the length you have written) do they publish in a day? A week? What types of topics are they typically covering? Do they tend to emphasize local issues more than national ones? Slant your op-ed to suit their approach. If they tend to lean hyper-local, make sure you have localized statistics, facts and information, even if you are writing about a national issue.
  • Make it as easy as possible for your op-ed to be used by the outlet you’ve chosen. Use email to submit your op-ed and include all of the requested information with the submission. Nearly all publications accept submissions by email. They may say they accept snail mail submissions, but the reality is that written submissions require more work for the news staff. Someone has to key the copy from a snail mail submission into a computer so it can be laid out. In the highly-competitive news environment we operate in today where there are many more submissions than there is space or time to invest in publishing them – few outlets will take the time to key in an op-ed by hand any more. Use email for your submission. If they request the writer’s name, a one-line bio, address, phone number and email address, provide them with the submission. Don’t make the editor ask for it later if he or she is interested. Don’t send a one page biography and expect for the news staff to whittle it down to the one sentence they requested (you may not like the one sentence they come up with).
  • Be persistent. If your op-ed is turned down by one newspaper or website, try another one. Continue to update the content for timeliness and relevancy to current events and issues. Consider re-tooling it for use in your organization’s newsletter or on your website.

Everyone wants to know what you think.

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